I am in a.. how you say? chair for haircut. My hands are tied to arms. He uses his right hand to make a band of steel around his left wrist. Top of legs. Nothing.. How you say ‘no clothe’? Naked? Yes. Head is down. Yahia puts chin to chest. Then hot water to your head. Very hot. Boiling? He nods his bald head. You see hair falling onto body. His hands brush lightly down his trunk. You must keep head down. If you put back, the hot water hit your.. is it ‘genital’? Very much pain. Put your head back more, it hit the back. Yahia cups his hand to indicate a headrest and electric all through your body.
His body shakes either by way of demonstration or muscle-memory. Juan nods his head. He too knows the effect of electricity through the human body…
Yahia has tears in his eyes. So do I. He pauses, makes a nervous kissing sound with his lips, all the while unconsciously counting omnipresent prayer-beads with his thumb as we would have flicked marbles as kids. I ask him if he ever has nightmares, you know, bad dreams. No more. There was time I dream about.. He says an Arabic word I don’t understand, then reaches up for the dangling cord of the green cafe umbrella in whose shade we are standing. He loops it over his head and we are in no doubt. Before his escape he had had recurrent dreams about the noose. He knew that his name, Yahia Al-Samawy was on one of Saddam Hussein’s execution orders. It was just a matter of time…
We stand in the shade of a London plane tree and a very old palm. We have this in Iraq, but this one has no fruit…
It is the final day of Adelaide Writers’ Week. A perfect autumn day. Some of the glossy green leaves on what might be Manchurian pears have begun their slow turn to the colour of shiraz. Or blood. We are standing between the East tent and the West tent, two giant but temporary marquees set up in a parkland. The dappled March sunshine filters through these deciduous refugees from another continent onto an audience drinking glasses of wine and beer and short blacks in paper cups.
It could be a painting by Renoir or Monet…
Perhaps it is not so much impressionism as surrealism, this talk of horror in these leafy surroundings. I mention the irony to Yahia. People ask me where paradise begins. It is here- in Adelaide. And where is Hell ? Perhaps it comes from the Pentagon..
Yahia laughs, showing the false teeth which replace the ones they knocked out.
Juan Garrido-Salgado was born in Chile. A committed socialist, he became Pinochet’s political prisoner after "The Other September 11", when democratically-elected president Allende was overthrown in a CIA-assisted military coup and assassinated in 1973. After imprisonment and torture Juan sought exile in Adelaide in 1990. A writer of beautiful poetry in Spanish, he had to begin all over again with this new language, English. The story he was hearing from Yahia had uncomfortable parallels in his own life.
At the beginning of the week it had been hot. Too hot to stand in the sun. Now the late afternoon is cool and the leaves are turning. The world is changing.
Sometimes I have felt my own life has been unexciting, mundane. Same city, same job. A primary school teacher my whole life, it seems. Yet talking to these two freedom-fighters makes me to wonder if it’s simply fairness and predictability to which most people on the planet aspire.
I tell Yahia this has been a special end to a rare week. Next week I’ll be back with the children. I have taught three of Yahia’s children, knew them well before I’d met Yahia or heard his poetry or the story of his life.
In Iraq, Yahia had been a teacher too – and a journalist – but lost accreditation when he refused to pledge allegiance to Saddam and the Baath Party. Under torture he signed an "agreement" that he would cease to criticise the regime. After release he continued to speak out knowing his name would now automatically be on the death-list. He left his family immediately and crossed the border. Later his wife Wejdan walked across the desert for three days with their children Shayma and Ali. They sought refuge in Saudi Arabia before making their way quietly to Australia.
Yahia tells me his later daughter Najed is named after the city in his homeland.
The name of his youngest, Sarah, means simply "Joy".
Yahia is still widely remembered and regarded in the Middle East for his poetic imagery and opposition to both the privileged excesses of the Shahs and the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. His poetry in Arabic has won him the prestigious Prize of the Arab Union for Poetic Creativity. He continues to travel back for guest appearances at Writers’ Festivals. He has published 15 volumes of poetry in Arabic and one in English.
Now Saddam is in prison. Yahia is free. Iraq is being torn apart after its ‘liberation.’
But as Yahia says in verse:
"Leave my sacrificed country
The slain people
Waterways … and clay
And leave us in peace.
We won’t exchange the pig for the wolf..."*
Nothing will silence Yahia Al-Samawy.
And I am left with the faintest hope that perhaps the pen really can overcome the sword…
[* excerpt from Leave My Country in Two Banks with No Bridge by Picaro Press, 2005. Copyright Yahia al-Samawy, 2005. Copyright English Translation Eva Sallis, 2005.]